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10 April 2024

Alex Garland’s Civil War is his sharpest, most brutal dystopia

The British director’s film imagines a present day America that has fallen into internecine violence.

By David Sexton

Alex Garland is a specialist in unravelling reality. His stories take people to places where the normal rules don’t apply and craziness erupts. The Beach, his debut novel published in 1996 when he was only 26, finds chaos in paradise. Danny Boyle filmed it in 2000. Soon after, Garland scripted for him the hyper-zombie film 28 Days Later, starring the young Cillian Murphy. Rage erupts – and the affinity with video games and graphic novels is clear.

Garland’s first film as director as well as writer was Ex Machina in 2014: a seductive android (Alicia Vikander) slaughters her maker. Annihilation (2018) sees five spectacular women enter an inexplicable zone of shape-shifting and horror. Men (2022) needed only one man (Rory Kinnear) to torment a vulnerable woman (Jessie Buckley) in multiple grotesque guises.

Civil War, Garland’s fourth feature, has a simple premise, requiring no science fiction or supernatural horror. America, in the near future, has fallen into internecine violence. A dictatorial president, abolishing the FBI and using air strikes against American citizens, is claiming an illegal third term in office. Heavily armed secessionists, in a “Western Alliance” of Texas and California, are battling to bring him down. The president rants on TV that he is winning. “Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind,” the oaf boasts: might as well be Trump, then. But the rebels are closing in on Washington DC. We follow a group of four war reporters, in a kind of wild road movie that takes them from New York to DC, as they try to reach the White House before it falls.

Lee (Kirsten Dunst) is a famous war photographer, the youngest ever to work for Magnum (her name references the photographer Lee Miller). But she’s lost faith in her calling. “I thought I was sending a warning home – don’t do this. But here we are,” she says bitterly.

Her colleagues, reporter Joel (Wagner Moura)and, from a rival paper, Sammie (Stephen McKinley Henderson), are experienced in war zones too. But they are joined by an importunate 23-year-old novice, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), toting her father’s camera. Jessie idolises Lee and wants to emulate her. She’s so shocked by what she sees that she forgets to take pictures.

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Garland sets up the relationships between these four carefully, before sending them on a series of frightening, chaotic encounters. Everybody’s carrying automatic weapons, nobody knows what side anybody’s on. Some vigilantes guarding a petrol station are torturing former schoolmates. There is a vicious battle between rival militias at close quarters. At an abandoned winter wonderland in the countryside, snipers are duelling, neither knowing nor caring who they are fighting. “Someone’s trying to kill us, we’re trying to kill them.”

In the most shocking scene, the reporters are held at gunpoint by unidentified men in paramilitary uniforms who are dumping bodies into a mass grave. One of them is a psycho-horror, hiding behind blood-red sunglasses, killing on impulse (Jesse Plemons, Dunst’s real-life husband, rivetingly nasty). “We’re Americans,” the journalists protest. “What kind of Americans are you?” he demands. From where? Colorado passes, so does Missouri. Hong Kong immediately gets a bullet.

This man is some kind of deranged white supremacist, but the film is not much interested in causes so much as the phenomena of disintegration and civil collapse across the board. “It’s important to understand that nobody is immune,” Garland, never a fluent explicator of his own stories, has commented. “No country is immune from that. Because it is nothing to do with countries, it is to do with people.”

The film culminates in a terrifically violent assault on the White House, expertly choreographed by military adviser Ray Mendoza, and filmed in news footage style with handheld cameras. Inevitably, it invites comparison with the gross thrillers White House Down (Channing Tatum) and Olympus Has Fallen (Gerard Butler), both from 2013 – but Civil War is nastier.

Garland is aware of the dangers of sensationalising such scenes and romanticising courage. The ending is sour. Jessie has become a war junkie. “These last few days I’ve never felt scared like that before and I’ve never felt more alive,” she says, taking pictures that freeze the moment in the midst of carnage. Civil War may not be quite the premonition of a Trumpian apocalypse that it is advertised to be – it’s also a huge punt, the most expensive film ever from independent production company A24 – but it is Garland’s sharpest, most visionary rendering yet of the world gone wrong.

“Civil War” is in cinemas from 12 April

[See also: Dev Patel’s Monkey Man: political commentary meets bone-crunching action]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward